By some turn of fate or striking coincidence, William Shakespeare’s King Lear happens to be my most watched of all his works. It’s not that I’m a big Lear fan – I do enjoy it as a play and find the gender politics as well as the handling of ageing and senility very interesting – but I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite of the Bard’s works. Perhaps, instead, the reason behind my repeated viewing of this epic tragedy is because it is staged so often. Within the theatre pantheon, it is considered the golden role for older male actors, just as Hamlet is considered the golden role for young male actors. Every year, it seems, another production of King Lear is announced with yet another iconic male actor over the age of seventy in the titular role. I have seen some beautiful renditions of the great king from Ian McKellen to Anthony Hopkins, but I sense there is something of an over saturation of Lears in the British theatre. There is only so much you can do with a production without moving beyond the sublime and innovative into the ridiculous and disappointing. Yet, as more and more traditional plays are being re-explored through gender blind castings, perhaps new life can be breathed into these much performed plays. King Lear famously underwent this reversal of gender in 2016 when Glenda Jackson returned to acting to play the role of the ageing British monarch, but beyond Jackson’s casting, the genders of the other main characters remained unchanged. So I was intrigued by the concept of The Scullion’s new production, re-imagined as Queen Lear, where all the genders of the characters had been reversed within the traditional binary. How would these changes affect the relationships between the characters, how would their motivations be impacted? These were the questions I entered the Mission Theatre with.
Directed by Nicholas Downton-Cooper, Queen Lear brings to life a minimalist version of Britain, with a stark set of A-Frame ladders that morph into castles, heathland and thrones. Performed in modern dress, with costumes designed by Deej Helliker, the world of this Lear is something enigmatic and mercurial. While the genders of the characters are consciously changed, the actors have been cast age blind to the traditional casting of Lear. Our Queen Lear is a contemporary in age to her children and Gloucester’s children, and in some ways this loses the power of Lear’s growing physical and mental infirmity. Phoebe Mulcahy portrays Lear with a gravitas and aching vulnerability that is beautiful in its precision, but the devastation of Lear’s inevitable end cannot be transcribed to a younger actor. The failing might of this once powerful monarch is a difficult thing to capture and Mulcahy is at her most impressive in Lear’s deranged moments. She is the heart of the storm of this tempestuous play, but in truth the play never quite whips up to the fever pitch it needs to for the more outrageous and violent moments to work.
In many ways, there is too much restrainment in this production. When the horror of Gloucester’s mutilation occurs, it is a jarring moment. While Corey Rumble’s Goneril and Harry Freeman’s Regan both drip with the arrogance of spoiled young men, there isn’t the simmering rage or sadism in either character to warrant this violence; for such a terrible act to be credible, we must see the red flags before the blood is spilt. However, the strength of this show does lie in the strength of its cast. Billie-Jo Rainbird stands out in their incredible ability to shape shift into a myriad of characters, but most memorably, she brings a perfectly pitched levity to the gorgeous character of the Fool. Taruna Nalini makes a captivating and ferocious Kent while Meg Pickup’s impish turn as Edrene is reminiscent of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. More could have been explored in the shifting of the play’s gender dynamics, but this is certainly an intriguing production of Shakespeare’s Lear. Engaging, though a little lacking in passion, Queen Lear brings a different dimension to one of the Bard’s most loved tragedies.